Providing Flexible Learning Opportunities for Literacy Students (return)

by Di Dell, Lyn Wilson and Julie Frail

In recent years, the Adult Basic Education (ABE) teachers at the Petersham campus of the Sydney Institute of Technology (SIT) have been grappling with current work practices, and the ways in which we have reacted to the pace of change. However, the way we have interpreted and used our course curricula to provide educational opportunities for our student population had remained largely unexamined.

In an attempt to redress this, and faced with even more administrative and educational shifts this year, contributing to the mounting pressure we felt, teachers at Petersham have recently sought to evaluate their current provision, and make changes for future provision. Our current provision included the use of the courses Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational 8970 and the Certificate 1 in Adult Foundation Education (CAFÉ) 4999. In exploiting all opportunities and possibilities, we hoped to offer the Statement of Attainment in Adult Foundation Education (SAAFE) 4991 and 4992, to meet student needs as well.

In particular, we sought to evaluate our use of the course Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational, and the subject Reading and Writing for Adults (RAWFA) 8970A. At this stage, we wanted to rethink how we were providing for our learners, and how our placement decisions were being made, singling out RAWFA, with its large enrolment, to begin with, and foreshadowing the inclusion of the other two subjects, Maths Workshop 8970B and Literacy Assistance with a Volunteer Tutor 8970C, later.

We set out to consider changes that would ensure that the needs of our student population were better met, by not only identifying more precisely our students' goals and learning preferences, and focusing more clearly on the placement decisions we were making, but by broadening the scope of our RAWFA provision to expand opportunities for learning in more flexible ways. As well as our CAFÉ provision, RAWFA was clearly an area where the focus was on the learner, and this was paramount to flexible forms of delivery and flexible learning options. We were informed by the characteristics of 'flexible delivery' where there was an attempt 'to remove impediments to meeting the needs of learners and to optimise the learning process' (TAFE NSW, 1998, p 6).


We were aware that the term 'flexible delivery' had been hijacked, similar to the fate of terms such as 'political correctness' and 'public', the latter a feature of comment recently by columnist Phillip Adams in The Sydney Morning Herald. 'Flexible delivery' is a loose and broad-based term used to mean meeting purposes in different ways. However, there appeared to us to be a conflict between the economic understanding of the term, and the use of flexible delivery to support good learning practices in new training environments in TAFE. This was a conflict we had to resolve for ourselves.


Our concern was to guarantee the continued existence of the small student teacher ratio (6:1), vital to support individual programs, which was to be the basis for learning in all our modes of delivery in RAWFA. By ensuring that we made full use of this ratio, we hoped to stave off attempts to reduce hours per student or increase student/teacher ratios, especially in view of the recent abolition of the Ratios Committee in SIT.


The pressure for change

The pressure for change that teachers felt included the following:

€ the threat to the future tenure of an unaccredited Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational course, and a perceived lack of support for it within the Institute, and most particularly for the RAWFA curriculum, with its negotiated and individualised programs

€ increasing pressure from Institute managers for 'better' student outcomes in RAWFA (ie more course completes)

€ the implementation of more accountability checks by managerss

€ limiting the time allowed for RAWFA provision, regardless of student difference in achieving goals

€ attempting to redefine the ABE student profile in line with TAFE's Vocational Education and Training (VET ) agenda, to eliminate students with undeveloped or 'personal' goals, or those with affective concerns eg lack of confidence or fear of educational settings

€ introducing marksheets for RAWFA

€ pressure to deal with class sizes as effectively as possible, combined with a lack of support for the 6:1 student/teacher ratio

€ pressure placed on consistent full attendance in all classes based on an averaging of attendance

€ the need to provide learning opportunities for students on lengthy waiting lists

€ the need to provide more learning opportunities for our current students

€ a perceived move towards flexible delivery options in the delivery of education



The Literacy Numeracy Pre Vocational course, and most particularly RAWFA, has provided much of the philosophical base for teaching in ABE, and has historically attempted to meet the diversity of student needs, and the nature of student groups.

This part-time course, which is currently unaccredited, is designed to provide access and entry for learners, as well as a pathway to other TAFE courses, and consists of three subjects, with a teaching ratio of 6:1 in both RAWFA and Maths Workshop. It is already a flexible form of delivery with its capacity to respond quickly and effectively to learners' individual needs.

Figure 1 below (Hazell, 1998, p 20) shows the historical relationship of the previous Certificate in Adult Basic Education (CABE), and the relationship between current courses: CAFE, Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational (L/N Prevoc), and the Certificate in General Education (CGE), as well as demonstrating the breadth of provision of subjects like RAWFA.

RAWFA provides:

€ flexible entry and exit points

€ a focus on the student and an acknowledgement of adult status

€ a focus on the skills of learning

€ a focus on the individual learning styles of students

€ an appropriate context for learning which draws on existing student interest, talents and experiences

€ goals of increasing student autonomy and ownership of learning

€ a supportive and collaborative learning environment, where negotiation of content, methods and processes is featured, and where student input is valued

€ individualised programs for students to meet specifically identified literacy needs eg vocational or further education needs

€ monitoring of individual student progress towards goals

€ a base from which many other pathways can be taken eg CAFE / SAAFE, CGE, and further language, pre-vocational and vocational courses


Teachers began to identify areas where our existing RAWFA provision was not meeting the diverse range of situations we required for our students. They felt strongly that a major shift in the culture of RAWFA provision both on-site and off-site (workplace programs) needed to come about. Alongside a large on-site student enrolment, our WELL-funded and commercial programs, such as those in Community Services and Health, specifically in the aged care industry, and in the food industry, were large and varied, and there were many shift workers with a range of literacy needs currently enrolled in Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational programs, and specifically in RAWFA. A more flexible form of delivery was therefore seen as a curriculum initiative with great potential to maximise the benefits of the 'individualised', flexible and responsive nature of RAWFA.


Challenging past assumptions


With the introduction of CAFE and more recently, SAAFE, as well as the recent accreditation of short courses such as 4109 Statement of Attainment, for use in

LANS (Literacy and Numeracy Services) tenders and similar situations, teachers felt it timely to re-evaluate the use of RAWFA. We particularly observed a lack of clarity about the distinction between courses at similar levels; and began to note how this affected our placement of students in classes.


In this re-evaluation process we were compelled to reflect on past placement decisions, and the common assumptions that were held. We noted that our usual practice of initial assessment of literacy and numeracy skills resulted in routine placement of those students with higher level skills and more educational experience in CAFÉ. This was an extension of practice from previous years of placing such students in CABE. However, CAFÉ offered broader options than CABE had done, and the new SAAFE courses would provide even more choices.


We noted these common assumptions, many of which were in need of revision:

€ higher level students should be placed in CAFE

€ beginner students should be placed in RAWFA

€ RAWFA students were the students with 'personal' and 'social' goals or poorly articulated goals

€ RAWFA students were the students who present with little or no learning experience

€ RAWFA provided a more 'social' outlet for students who needed it

€ some students were not 'ready' for CAFÉ, or even a SAAFE when it became available, as they needed more RAWFA

€ CAFÉ students were the ones who were more 'serious' or 'driven' about their learning

€ the group settings in CAFÉ might be too intimidating for beginning students

€ once a student had been enrolled in CAFÉ, or a SAAFE, or completed a stage in the course, they couldn't 'go back' to RAWFA


We began to question these assumptions and the placement decisions that resulted. Given the existence of the course options we had, we needed to identify where each student would be better placed.


The choices were one of the 4 stages of CAFÉ, or one of the 3 stages of SAAFE, or RAWFA. We needed to consider which option would most effectively assist each individual learner achieve their learning goal.



The CAFÉ course was designed to articulate into further education courses and a range of vocational education and training courses, and has 4 learner levels known as stages, that are called F,S,T and D, and equate with levels 1, 2, 3 and 4, F being the lowest level and D being the course completion level (refer Hazell, 1998, p 38, and Figure 1).

The recently available SAAFE, at F,S and T stages only, is a course that corresponds to CAFÉ, with different requirements for course completion. In ABE at Petersham, the decision was made to use SAAFE, as well as CAFÉ, and to acknowledge students' achievements at F and S stages with a statement of attainment. While these students, for whatever reason, were not candidates for a TAFE certificate, we could see the potential for using a competency based course for selected learners at these lower levels.


We identified what we believed to be significant aspects of CAFÉ and SAAFE courses, for the main purpose of clarifying our learner options:

€ accredited courses with competency based curriculum

€ courses for students wanting to complete at certificate level, at the D stage

€ entry level courses providing for beginner readers and writers at the F and S stages

€ a 15:2 student teacher ratio at the F and S stages

€ three contexts for learning dependent on student goals ie three core module context areas: personal and social activity, further education and training, and work and preparation for work

€ both numeracy and literacy learning, which coexisted in the core modules, and was interpreted by many practitioners to be the integration of literacy and numeracy teaching, particularly as assessment provides no mechanism for separating literacy from numeracy performance (refer Hazell, 1998, p 37).

€ a perceived group focus for learning, with modules designed so that there is common content (which accommodates mixed groups, where levels of teacher assistance and of task complexity provide the difference), and where there are syllabus guidelines for special groups with common needs eg women students, and Aboriginal students (with specific electives such as Arts and Media)

€ a curriculum where teaching practices and guidelines are aimed towards the client group, incorporating 'negotiations that affect the whole group' that are conducted 'with the class as a whole'. Negotiations can include choice of content, choice of module and choice of module purpose, where relevance is specific to the needs and interests of the group (TAFE NSW, 1994, CAFÉ Manual), providing learning opportunities based on students' shared and broad-based learning needs

€ learning outcomes, at all levels in all modules, which incorporate affective outcomes (eg increase in confidence, increase in participation, ability to work effectively in groups), development of students as learners, and the development of literacy and numeracy, and refer to both individual and group goals

€ assessment which functions at the level of achievement of module purpose rather than individual learning outcomes

€ a range of local and vocational electives

€ a highly adaptive and flexible structure that can be adapted or customised to meet the needs of different groups of students

€ a range of possible full-time and part-time formats (any configuration of hours is possible)

€ a complementary pathway to RAWFA, making them viable options for entry level students

Hazell (1998), in her research, has observed a picture of CAFÉ as one of diversity, where different CAFÉ provision emerges in different situations. While re-evaluating the placement of learners in a sizable student population, teachers perceived that a changed placement for many enrolled students, and increased access for new students in Semester 2, could be made as a result of the different learning situations that were emerging in ABE at Petersham.


Student voices

Teachers at Petersham decided to more fully explore new ways to meet students' individual needs. Meeting the needs of our current (and waiting) students was always a major priority. Hence a student survey was conducted in Semester 1, 1998, to determine how we could better meet the needs of our RAWFA students in Semester 2.

This survey identified significant numbers of students who were finding regular attendance twice a week for 3 hrs too demanding eg students with full time work, and students with childcare obligations who experienced difficulties with a 9am start or a 3 hour class in the afternoons.


There were also significant indications that other students:

€ needed to use the classroom outside their allotted class times

€ wanted more class or teacher time

€ wanted a substantial amount of work and to make faster progress towards literacy or numeracy goals

€ needed more time for independent learning

€ presented with very specific literacy tasks requiring some intensive literacy work

€ needed the flexibility of attending class only when they needed help


In addition to the survey, it was noted from our waiting lists that significant numbers of students had jobs which involved irregular hours ie they had rosters and shifts which changed on a weekly basis, or had heavy family commitments, or were doing other study as well. This had made permanent placement in a regular class almost impossible. There were also students on our lists returning from bouts of illness, who needed to return to study gradually, or who would find a long class session a strain.


A plan of action


An action plan was developed following the participation of a group of interested teachers in a four day professional development program on Flexible Delivery at SIT, Ultimo. It was as follows:

1. Target a small number of current RAWFA students to participate in a trial of flexible delivery learning.

2. Determine the most suitable times to offer these students access to the classroom or ABE centre.

3. Liaise with current class teachers to review students' individual programs

4. Re-organise the learning centre for the best use of the learning space.

5. Develop induction materials to introduce students to new modes of delivery.

6. Deliver introductory induction sessions to students in groups.

7. Begin re-organising current resources and learning materials.

8. Begin the development and purchase of self-paced / self-access learning materials to support a more independent delivery of learning.


Based on the results of the student survey and this action plan, a trial was implemented. The objective was to offer additional delivery and access to learning to a targeted group of RAWFA students, to minimise the time needed for them to reach their goals, while addressing their individual learning needs.


Trialling a more flexible approach

The trial group of students was offered access to the classroom outside their allotted class times, after they had completed the induction sessions. In addition, students were entitled to book in for 30 min appointment times with designated teachers. Students were expected to work independently in the classroom outside their appointment times. Individual programs developed in their regular RAWFA classes were used as the basis for work done in these additional times. Periods and type of attendance in the learning centre, outside class times, were recorded and monitored eg through attendance slips, individual program records and a shared teacher communication log.


Apart from this targeted group, ten more students were to gain additional time because they shared positions in regular RAWFA classes, only being able to attend limited rostered class times, and thus were coming to only one session each week.



The following observations were made about the students in the trial period:

€ there were fewer exits from students who were facing family and/or work pressures on their time

€ students were more focused on their individual programs

€ the placement of students for the trial relied mainly on teacher referral and recommendation, as well as on a good understanding of the changed form of delivery. This has resulted in some inappropriate placements. It also resulted in students, who may have been more appropriate, not being included

€ the small number of students enrolled in the trial necessarily limited student options. The classroom was opened for these students for only 5 hours a week, thereby limiting our 'flexibility'

€ because some students did not fully understand the emphasis on the independent use of the centre outside appointment times, supervising teachers often found themselves giving extended support

€ there were no students in Semester 1 who were using the appointment system and the learning centre independently as their only form of delivery. They all had a regular class or classes. Meanwhile, there were people on the waiting list without class placement, who could have been accessing this provision

€ there was little opportunity to liaise with CAFE co-ordinators about students more suited to a flexible RAWFA provision. Hours allotted were spent on co-ordination, provision and the development of resources


The evaluation process has continued during the pilot in Semester 2. The implementation of changes to provision, with the introduction of extra opportunities for learning and more flexible modes of delivery for the entire RAWFA enrolment, took the observations of the trial period in Semester 1 into account.


Student placement

It seemed from our observations and reflections, and renewed understanding of our available courses, that many students we had always placed in RAWFA classes might be better placed in a CAFE or SAAFE course. Equally, it seemed that many of the students we considered appropriate for a CAFÉ (and now SAAFE) might be better served by the more flexible arrangements being made for RAWFA delivery, and the smaller student teacher ratio (6:1), which better supported the development and maintenance of individual programs.


As in Figure 1 (see page 9) (Hazell, 1998), RAWFA is not restricted to lower or entry levels. Although it has not been part of the perceived standard pathways, there is nothing in the curriculum that prevents RAWFA from being part of an alternate pathway from CAFÉ or SAAFE, in the best interest of the learner, and an appropriate choice for students at various stages of an ABE pathway.


A semester review process which has been used by Petersham teachers over the years, normally carried out at the end of each semester, now played a pivotal role in Semester 2, along with the student surveys, in evaluating student placement. We wanted to ensure that those students remaining in RAWFA, those that were referred from CAFÉ, and new student placements, were the enrolment that would best benefit from the additional and more flexible learning opportunities in RAWFA.


We looked at students for RAWFA placement based on their identified individual literacy need or their immediate short term goals, along with their learning preferences, their level of motivation and demands made on their time. As well as students at entry level, we saw our RAWFA delivery as highly appropriate for students with previous learning experiences, who could work independently, or for students needing to work on further goal setting and educational planning. For some students, developing independent learning skills, and gaining experience in flexible learning environments, assisted further education goals eg articulation to flexible delivery in other TAFE courses.


Alternatively, we considered students' common literacy and numeracy needs and shared goals, and our ability to meet them, when placing students in stages of the CAFÉ or SAAFE courses. Some students with little previous learning experience were seen as highly appropriate for a group focus. We also took students' broad or undeveloped individual goals into consideration.


Learning opportunities in RAWFA

There are now 4 modes of delivery being offered within all RAWFA programs:

1. Individual time (eg 1_ hrs in regular class sessions; 1hr in 1:1 sessions)

2. Workshop time (eg 1hr in regular class sessions, with students accessing other available workshops if appropriate)

3. Independent time (dependent on room timetabling)

4. Appointment time (optional for those attending regular class sessions)

Teachers work in group contexts, within the 6:1 student/teacher ratio, assuming shared responsibility for monitoring the individual programs of all students at any one session (eg 3 teachers may work together with a regular class group of 18 students); and for presenting workshops, the group context for learning, which are planned with the content of individual programs in mind.

Course delivery may take many forms including various combinations of delivery modes, teaching methods and learning resources, as well as different patterns of attendance, to meet learner needs. An important choice for students here is choosing how they want to learn. Students can work in a particular delivery mode that suits their learning style, and that they are comfortable with. For instance, some of our learners prefer individual study, with teacher support, while others prefer to work in a group environment, where there is not only teacher support, but opportunities to meet and work with other learners. These 4 learning modes suit many of our learners, who are making use of them in a variety of combinations.


Resource implications

It was recognised that more flexible forms of delivery and learning in RAWFA programs would rely heavily on promoting independent learning skills. Students would need resources that could be easily used, could be used independently, and that they could access themselves.


An induction for students into the more flexible provision was written, to give clear information about the delivery of learning, and to address related issues such as independent learning.This induction forms the first two weeks of new programs, and is delivered in class groups, culminating in the setting up of individual programs.


Another initiative that supported resource concerns was a 'goals audit', conducted in Semester 1, that involved all students in RAWFA. The aim was to determine priorities for resource development. As a result, a range of self-access resources is currently being developed to support more independent learning in our programs. In addition, units of work promoting reading and writing skills, and critical understandings, most based around familiar news events, are available to teachers each week to use with students, or adapt if needed. These act as models for appropriate resource development, and are an encouragement to teachers to share their work.

The need for systems

It became clear, as the year developed, that we needed to create supporting systems for the RAWFA provision: booking in appointment times with a teacher, recording student attendance, and monitoring student activities. New systems that were established included:

€ a weekly booking sheet for students for 30 min appointments, on display in the centre. Bookings could be made over the phone as well

€ student attendance slips to indicate date, time and mode, for students to complete and the teacher to sign

€ the piloting of a new roll being used in SIT (an adaptation of CLAMS - a Class Management System)

€ student learning records, kept in special student work folders, within easy reach in the centre, so that students, their regular class teachers, and the appointment teachers, could have access at all times to a record of their learning

€ student referral forms, devised for the use of any CAFÉ / SAAFE teacher wishing to refer a student for RAWFA

€ the development of timetables for independent time and appointment time

€ the development of guidelines for the independent use of the learning centre

€ the development of guidelines for appointments

€ a checklist for use of appointment time to assist teachers

€ a system for the noticeboards to advertise workshops (and vacancies)

€ a teachers' work table and a filing system for sharing teacher-made or adapted learning materials

€ a series of teacher 'news flashes' to relay information to teachers, and to address the issues that arise with a new form of provision

€ a series of folders to collect group workshops


Alongside the introduction of these new systems, parallel efforts were made to develop procedures to allow for improved monitoring of student learning history, attendance, outcomes and articulation, as well as student exits and replacements. These have been developed to form a foundation for the administration of more flexible provision in ABE at Petersham.

1. A student database of all students enrolled in all courses, and of waiting listed students, holding particular information that we need

2. Access to class lists that show (at a glance) the movement of students on a class basis, and allow for the monitoring of all exit and enrolment details

3. Separate student request and replacement forms that remind all teachers of the exit and enrolment process


Summary of current developments

The changes that have been underway in 1998 have included the introduction of:

€ professional development and research into flexible delivery alternatives

€ a trial period for new delivery modes in RAWFA in Semester 1, with a targeted group of students, to provide them with more flexible learning opportunities

€ revised placement decisions in Semester 2, with a stronger and clearer focus on the criteria for placement in all stages of CAFÉ and SAAFE, and in all subjects of Literacy Numeracy Pre-Vocational, specifically in RAWFA

€ SAAFE classes at F and S Stages, established for those students whose needs may be better met in a SAAFE class

€ a pilot program for the entire RAWFA enrolment in Semester 2, allowing access to a combination of learning opportunities depending on identified goals, time available and learning styles, with some compulsory requirements for attendance, dependent on the combination of delivery

€ more varied RAWFA class sessions eg 2 x 2_ hrs, 1 x 3 hrs

€ 30 minute appointments and independent use of the classroom when required for RAWFA students

€ access to additional group learning for RAWFA students ie workshops, if available and if appropriate

€ a greater emphasis on individualised programming and planning in RAWFA, including the development and maintenance of:

- long and short term goals

- individual educational plans

- increased support for teachers to set up and evaluate learning plans and to monitor student progress

- procedures for teachers to communicate together about students in class groups eg regular student-free planning sessions, and a communication log for each teaching group, with a summary of student contact and work plans

€ greater support for teachers with more provision of resources to assist in planning workshops and maintaining individual programs

€ greater student access to individual program and planning folders, as well as to resources, teachers and learning spaces

€ a more accessible learning environment, with the re-arrangement of the ABE classroom, to provide for more independent learning

€ organisational and administrative 'systems' to allow for better monitoring of student attendance, student learning options, student articulation , student exits and student replacement eg the trialing of a new roll system to more accurately describe the nature and pattern of student attendance and the mode(s) of delivery


How are things going?

It's too early for more than initial observations. We've been piloting all our RAWFA classes with the flexible learning options outlined only since the start of Semester 2, 1998. However, our observations suggest that the approach is motivating for both students and teachers.


From anecdotal evidence and teacher observations, we are noticing that many of our students are eagerly taking up a range of learning opportunities.


We are noticing, as well, that students are getting to college earlier, and using independent time to study before their class starts, as well as remaining afterwards to work independently from their class work folders. Students with vocational and further education pathways in mind appear more driven to reach goals, and are more fully utilising the range of available learning options.


Nevertheless, students, on the whole, are slow in picking up additional provision in workshops. So far, while workshops are well attended by class groups, only a small number of students are taking full advantage of the extra opportunities here for group learning. There is a need to direct attention to how workshops are advertised, and how teachers are directing students to those that are available and relevant.


Appointment time, however, is proving a most popular additional delivery, and appointments are well-attended, and booked out weeks ahead, with many students taking the opportunity to spend even more time on independent study as a result afterwards. While the intention of the appointment time was to support student learning ie to supplement individual programs where needed, and resolve issues that couldn't be dealt with in class time, we are finding that some students are using it for the additional literacy or numeracy work they require to fill some learning gaps. We will need to reconsider what can be achieved in this time. Meanwhile, we are working on further guidelines to assist better communication between appointment teachers and class teachers. A record of what happened (work or student support) during appointments is now being included in each student's working folder.


In giving our students more choices regarding when they learn, where they learn and how they learn, teachers have found some changes to their roles and practices. The need to work together to be increasingly responsive to learners' needs, has resulted in more contact time between teachers, and this is where student-free team planning sessions have been introduced. Working together in group contexts, with shared responsibility, ideally taps into each other's expertise as well eg numeracy or computer knowledge, to provide a balance of teacher skills in each class group, and an increased capacity to respond to individual learning need. We are beginning to see this emerging in some areas. Teachers are also finding that they are dealing with students in a greater variety of situations, and, as a consequence, some of our administrative procedures have changed, with an added emphasis on record-keeping, and on developing systems to better track progress and outcomes.


Yes, it is a lot of workŠbut significantly, at this time, teachers are reporting renewed interest and energy from working together in new ways to meet student needs.


The piloting of the initiatives for RAWFA students introduced this year by the teachers at Petersham, has been designed to provide a more secure foundation for the development of individualised programs, a stronger base for a range of flexible learning opportunities, greater opp nities, greater opportunities for learning in a group context and greater opportunities for learning independently. As we realise the impact and the importance of documenting our working practices, further developments during Semester 2 will continue to be closely monitored and reported.

(For further information, contact us in ABE at SIT Petersham NSW, Ph: 02 93352551)



Hazell P, 1998, Student Outcomes: Investigating competency based curriculum in Adult Basic Education, Centre for Language and Literacy, University of Technology Sydney, Research report no 5, in print

TAFE NSW, 1994, Certificate in Adult Foundation Education 4999, Manual, Course Syllabus, Vol 1, Part A, 'Course Description', and Part E, 'Teaching the CAFÉ'

TAFE NSW, 1998, Everyone's Guide to Flexible Delivery, for Institute and Educational Services Division Staff, Resource Version, the Educational Development Directorate